|THE QUESTION OF PRIVACY|
August 23, 1999
MARGARET WARNER: When and where can a politician insist on a zone of personal privacy? We begin our look with this report by Kwame Holman.
SPOKESMAN: I'm going to tell you something. It's time for some politician to stand up and say enough is enough of this.
KWAME HOLMAN: For months, Texas Governor George Bush said he would not answer any questions about whether he ever used illegal drugs. But last week, he went back on that pledge. He told reporters that during the time his father was in the White House, he truthfully could have answered no to questions about drug use routinely posed in F.B.I. background checks.
Not only could I have passed the standards applied in today's White House, I could have passed the standards applied on the most stringent conditions when my dad was President of the United States.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Bush campaign later said the Texas governor meant by his statements that he has been drug free since 1974, when he was 28 years old. But that didn't end a growing debate.
SPOKESMAN: Cocaine: Did he or didn't he?
KWAME HOLMAN: Over the weekend, myriad politicians weighed in on whether Bush should speak further about whether he used illegal drugs, particularly cocaine. Some said Bush has said enough already.
SPOKESMAN: This is not just about George Bush, this is about national politics and the right to privacy. The fact is, is that what we ought to be concerned about is the kind of person you are today and the fact that you've been able to overcome the sins of the past, Congressman. We're all sinners. The question is, did we get better?
KWAME HOLMAN: However two Bush rivals for the Republican presidential nomination said he should give a more direct answer to the question of the week.
SPOKESMAN: I think we're all going to have to answer questions that go to law breaking. I think that anything that involves a felony-- I don't see how you can get away with it. I think the simple thing to do, the easy thing to do, is just answer the question.
SPOKESMAN: I think the best way to handle this as a candidate for President, since you're going to be the chief law enforcement officer of the land if you're elected, is to be forthright and candid. Tell people what you really...just answer the darn question and get rid of it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Other politicians from both parties toed a middle line on the drug use question.
SPOKESMAN: Well, it is legitimate, and no, he doesn't have to be compelled to answer it. That's his decision. He has to decide just how far he'll go down that road and what kind of consequences there are for answering it or not answering it.
SPOKESMAN: My take is that he has a right to privacy. But I also understand that the media and the American people set the standard as to where that level of privacy is. And I'd like to see his privacy preserved, but I also understand that this is a very difficult business that we're in.
KWAME HOLMAN: For his part, Governor Bush now has returned to his original position, saying he will not answer any further questions on the subject.
MARGARET WARNER: To explore the issue of politicians and privacy beyond the Bush case, we're joined by two Republican governors, Gary Johnson, of New Mexico, and Frank Keating of Oklahoma, Former Arkansas Governor and U.S. Senator, Dale Bumpers, a Democrat, who is now director of the Center for Defense Information, and NewsHour regular, David Gergen, a former advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. Governor Johnson, how much personal privacy should a political figure expect to have to give up if he goes into politics?
GARY JOHNSON: Oh, I think the press has the right to ask any questions they want to ask, and what I really see here is an opportunity to look at the drug laws that we have in this country. And I want to suggest that the drug law... that the drug war in this country is really a miserable failure and that George Bush is one of 78 million Americans that... I guess he hasn't admitted it... that 78 million Americans have done illegal drugs at one point or another, and that, again, that this is an issue that really needs to be looked at and we need to focus on our lost war, that the goal should really be about reducing drug use and by all measurement, we have increased drug use in this country over the last 30/40 years.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor, if I could interrupt you, what I really would like to look at here, though, and we should explain to our viewers that you did tell the voters of New Mexico before you were elected that you had experimented with cocaine in college. And we want to make sure the viewers understand that. But I'd like to look at the larger issue, not so much about Governor Bush or even the issue of drugs. In other words, when you went into politics, did you say to yourself I'm not going to have any secrets?
GARY JOHNSON: Well, again, I think people have a right to know. I think the press has the right to ask what questions they want to ask. And I understood that as part of this endeavor, in other words, as part of wanting to be and becoming governor of the state of New Mexico.
MARGARET WARNER: So you don't think there's a line that a politician can draw?
GARY JOHNSON: I don't think so.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor Keating, how do you see it?
FRANK KEATING: Well, it's not an easy issue, and it's certainly not an easy answer to develop. It's really person by person, circumstance by circumstance. But I agree with Gary Johnson, that it's really basically a house without curtains. Privacy, what kind of toothpaste do you use, what's your private fantasy, you know, what kind of dreams do you have, those are private questions and can require no answer. But when it comes to, have you paid all your parking tickets, have you paid all your taxes, have you used drugs? I think those are legitimate questions. But, obviously, there should be some kind of statute of limitations here. And over a generation is a pretty good statute. For example, when I was a child, when I was a young person, possession of marijuana was a misdemeanor, driving... rather underage drinking was a misdemeanor. I think 25 years ago, either of those questions don't need to be answered. But it's tough. Being in public life, you're an open book, you're basically a whipping boy; everybody likes to beat up on you and believe the worst. But we try to move through it and work our way through it as best we can. But it's not easy.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Bumpers, is that the way you see it, and you see it, that essentially you have to be an open book?
SEN. DALE BUMPERS: I don't think you can generalize about it. I think to generalize is very dangerous. Each case stands on its own hind legs. And I think that any politician, when question is raised by the press as to whether or not the politician has been guilty of some kind of conduct in the past or unethical conduct or something, he has to make a decision then as to how he strongly feels about it. If it actually is what he considers to be an invasion of his privacy, he can make a decision not to reveal it, not to talk about it. He does so at his own peril. And actually it is the press who will decide what is legitimate, supports an invasion of his privacy, which isn't. In the case of George Bush, for example, I think he takes the stand he's taking now at his own peril because the press is not likely to turn it loose. And in that connection - and we're not talking about George Bush here tonight, but just to say, Orrin Hatch is a good friend of mine, we served many years together in the Senate, and I don't think we voted together ten times, but we agreed on this. When you're asking the people to trust you and to put their faith in you to hold a certain office, you ought to be willing to put your faith in them. And it will pay rich dividends almost every time. And in almost every instance you can tell people. Governor Johnson just said that he had told the people in New Mexico. You see, it redounded to his benefit. And in most every instance, that's the way it will the turn out.
MARGARET WARNER: David Gergen, do you think a politician, if there's something personal that he doesn't or she doesn't want to talk about, can create and enforce a zone of privacy?
DAVID GERGEN: I think courageous politicians should try. And I hope that campaign will grow more forceful in the years ahead. Let's take a woman who is running for office who is pro-choice and may have had an abortion while she is an adult. And that is learned by the press or the people ask her about that, should she have to reveal that? I don't think so. We're rapidly coming to the time when we're going to have information about people's health records. The Human Genome Project is leading us to a time when we're going to be able to test people for their genetic make-ups. And employers are going to have that information. Should that information which may tell you what a person... a person has a predisposition to a certain disease, should that become a part of the public record? I don't think so. My own sense is that we have to fight now to restore his own privacy; we have become entirely too voyeuristic as a society. We're looking for information about public officials not to inform our judgment about their capacity to office but to titillate our emotions.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor Johnson, take the example David Gergen just offered. Let's say a woman politician, whether she's pro-choice or pro-life, who had had an abortion, would you consider that something that she should have to answer questions about?
GARY JOHNSON: Again, I just think that in this line of work, you've got to be prepared to answer any question that's presented to you. At least this has always been my impression. This is the way I played it. Just answer it. Answer truthfully. Anything that can be revealed eventually needs to get revealed immediately. There's always time to fix things. That's been my philosophy.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, David Gergen, back to you. In your capacity as advisor to different Presidents and political figures, what has been your advice when the blood's in the water, when the press is for one reason or another, fairly or unfairly on to something or thinks it's on to something and the pressure is building. Then, how should a political figure deal with it?
DAVID GERGEN: Margaret, my advice has been, if the issue that is at stake here is about your behavior as a public official, you are entirely accountable to the public for what you do on the public payroll and you should disclose that. That, after all, was the issue in Whitewater, it was the issue in Watergate, it was an issue in many, many of the scandal that we've had over the last 30 years in politics. But when it comes to your private life, and it's matters that do not have a significant or serious bearing upon your capacity to govern, then I believe that you should fight to maintain your privacy. Everything about you has some conceivable bearing on your capacity to govern, but that means that if that's the standard, if there's some conceivable bearing, everything is fair game. And I think that strips that political figure of his or her rights. I think it encourages "gotcha" journalism. And I think very, very badly -- it encourages us to look -- to judge people under wrong standards of performance, what's in their private lives, or what's in their sexual records, as opposed to what kind of public official you would be. Should we have disqualified Martin Luther King as a moral leader of this country because of the chaos in his private life? I think not.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor Keating, how would you answer this question, if you felt that the press was asking you about something that you honestly felt was inappropriate and personal, then what do you do at that point?
FRANK KEATING: Well, that's something, as our guests have said, is a challenge to every one of us who has been elected to public office. I happened to be of the view that you get into this arena and basically you're there in your under shorts and everybody can look at you. That's just the reality of 1999 politics. But you can always say that's none of your business, or I'm not going to answer that. You do that at your peril. Some people may vote for you because of your candor and your courage, some people may vote against you because the absence of candor and courage, but it has to be your individual answer. For example, what you do while you're in office in your private time, I think may very well be relevant. For example, if you entice an intern into your office and engage in inappropriate conduct, if you are saying things to people that simply are scurrilous and damaging to people's reputations, I mean, once you're in public life, I think you're an open book. But there ought to be, as I indicated, a statute of limitations. When you're a child, you better learn from your mistakes, and you ought to be given a pass as you learn through those mistakes.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor Johnson, you were trying to get in here.
GARY JOHNSON: Well, a couple of points. Do I answer, "it's none of your business?" Occasionally I do. How much money did you make prior to becoming governor? But I happen to think that this drug issue is a real lightning rod. And I'm not talking now about George Bush, I'm talking about the issue itself. And that is by the good graces of God, I didn't get arrested. I wasn't charged with a felony for being one of the 78 million Americans who have used illegal drugs. And I think that's the hypocrisy of our drug policies that we have today, that we're not reducing drug use, that we're putting a lot of people in jail.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Bumpers, do you think that the place at which a political figure can say "none of your business" has changed? I'm thinking of the fact that say, Gary Hart was essentially drummed out of the presidential race what, ten, eleven years ago once allegations surfaced about infidelity. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was able to turn the questions aside. Do you think the line has changed or not?
SEN. DALE BUMPERS: I think the press has become more persistent. They've put a lot more pressure on the candidates than they used to. But, Margaret, the test should always be, the first test should always be, is there an allegation or is there the suspicion, as in the case of George W. Bush... is it something that goes to his credibility or his ability to serve? Maybe it's a health problem. When they ask him will you reveal your health records, he says no. Maybe he has an emotional sickness. And that could be lethal even though sometimes it shouldn't be. But in the final analysis, if a candidate decides that his privacy is about to be invaded needlessly and that deals with an issue that's either very old or has nothing to do with his ability to serve in office, no matter how hard the press might try, they cannot keep it alive. And the reason people stayed with Bill Clinton through the impeachment trial was the American people made up their mind that infidelity was simply not enough to overturn an election.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying you think the public is really more... I don't know if it's sophisticated or tolerant than maybe the press?
SEN. DALE BUMPERS: They are. Margaret, I'm glad you used that expression and that term because the truth of the matter is this is one of the places - this is not unhappily - this is not always the case -- it's in this area where the people are much more sophisticated than they are sometimes in picking candidates. They are very unforgiving. As I say...
MARGARET WARNER: Forgiving or unforgiving?
SEN. DALE BUMPERS: They are very forgiving. And the truthfulness and the candor of a candidate who will admit, yes, you know, I did something wrong then, I regret it terribly and I'm sorry if I influenced any youngsters, apologized profusely for it. And they can usually tell by somebody's countenance, just their countenance and the way they express themselves, whether they're generally sorry, whether it is something that they're willing to forgive them for. And in almost every case, they are. So, usually -- Governor Johnson is absolutely right. In almost every instance, it is better for a politician to shell down the corn and tell the American people the unvarnished truth because I think they are forgiving. And I think they admire the people who have the candor and self-confidence to reveal things like that.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor Keating, do you think that the public is more tolerant, more forgiving? Do you think it's become more so or just we never asked them before?
FRANK KEATING: No. I think we're more forgiving. We're a very conflicting society. We're a very diverse society. I think people are very understanding of individuals that go through hard times in their lives because they go through hard times as well. But the one lesson from all this is, is even though you may say, "it's none of your business," even though you will see, I think, once candor emerges, a forgiving public, if you lie, you're finished.
MARGARET WARNER: David Gergen, your view of the public and whether the public has changed here.
DAVID GERGEN: I do think the public has become more tolerant as the public has learned more about the baby boom generation. For example, we've moved from marijuana being unacceptable for a potential Supreme Court candidate or a candidate for high office to marijuana use now being part of the record and people accept it and move on. We've moved on in the question of nannies and illegal hiring of nannies. That's now acceptable. It knocked people out. But, Margaret, I honestly feel that the issue is not just public acceptance. I think it's the way we demean those who run for office. It's the way we strip them of their dignity. The fact that a candidate must reveal that his wife took... was treated for depression, as happened in the Gore family or as happened in the Powell family, when the questions arise about whether someone's been treated psychologically in the past or there's been marriage counseling, I think there are a number of things about our lives which simply should be left to the individual. We all make mistakes. We all have blemishes. But the real issue is we ought not to be, in effects, you know, run through every time somebody wants to run for office. And let's remember, after all, what happened back in the late 1920's, we had an absolute boy scout for President. He was - he had an unblemished life. And Herbert Hoover went down as one of our least successful Presidents. He was succeeded by a man who had this affair that nearly tore apart his marriage that we didn't know about till years later. And he turned out to be one of our best Presidents. We should not simply be looking for boy scouts.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you, David, and Governors, very much.